Donald Trump, at some point during his visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, was shown a pair of manacles designed to shackle a child. His quoted response to the horrors conjured by the cruelly shaped metal—“That is really bad”—was roundly criticized as insufficient.
Which, of course, it was.
No response could ever do justice to the cosmology of suffering symbolized by that one set of chains. But much of the outcry over Trump’s laconic reaction derived from the fact that these were handcuffs designed for a child’s hands. The implication was that these small manacles elicited an exceptional form of atrocity, beggaring belief at the United States’s past cruelty in a way that adult-sized manacles would not.
The impulse to show Trump the child’s shackles, and the attention paid to his reaction to them, reveals how profoundly the prospect of child slaves robs us of the capacity to respond appropriately.
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The horror stories about Ebola seem to be proliferating as quickly as the disease itself. International newspapers and even governmental edicts speak of zombies. Here in the US, Twitter is ablaze with conspiracies tying Ebola to infiltrating immigrants. On the airwaves, Laura Ingram and Rush Limbaugh accuse President Obama of deliberately sacrificing US interests to atone for colonialism and slavery. Aghast at these paranoid fairy tales, many commentators don’t understand why we can’t just concentrate on the facts at hand.
But the facts underlying this epidemic—that poverty and conflict provide the perfect breeding ground for the spread of disease—are, in truth, the result of centuries-old fictions. Once we look at the history those fictions engendered, the medical data offers a tragic ending to an old story promising that somehow slaveholding nations could offshore their ghosts. That Liberia and Sierra Leone—the two nations in which Western countries sought to bury the sins of their slaveholding pasts—now conjure stories of zombies bent on avenging colonial wrongs should surprise no one.
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There are no robots in the world of Game of Thrones, but the Unsullied—an army of slave boys trained into finely honed killing machines–come as close to cyborgs as one can get with medieval tech.
For Daenerys Targaryen, who desires the highest throne in the world, but who is horrified by the rape, pillage and murder that accompanies conquest, the Unsullied offer a tempting option. She can have her war and a clean conscience. “There’s a beast in every man,” warns her advisor Ser Jorah, “and it stirs when you put a sword in his hand.” As enuchs who have been subjected to the strictest discipline, the Unsullied, Ser Jorah tells us, “are not men. They do not rape. They do not put cities to the sword unless they are ordered to do so. The only men they’ll kill are the ones you want dead.” The Unsullied, in other words, offer the medieval version of surgical strikes.
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